Iran signs major deals but worries what Trump has up his sleeve
London - On the day Donald Trump won the United States presidential election, French energy giant Total signed a preliminary deal valued at $4.8 billion-$6 billion to develop a phase of Iran’s massive South Pars gas field.
The agreement came just days after Iran reportedly secured the finance for the first tranche of a multibillion-dollar purchase of aircraft from US manufacturer Boeing.
Total and Boeing are among those awaiting indications of Trump’s intentions. Total’s was Iran’s first major energy agreement with a Western company since sanctions eased in January following Tehran’s July 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers led by the United States.
Such deals are important for Iran both in boosting foreign investment and in gaining access to up-to-date technology. The latter is especially important if Iran is to derive real benefit from its gas reserves of 34 trillion cubic metres, the world’s largest and 18.2% of the global total but which it has been pitifully slow to exploit, producing just 5.4% of global output in 2015.
Iran has reacted cautiously: President Hassan Rohani told the cabinet the US election would have no effect on Iranian policy and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif urged the United States to uphold its commitments. Like others around the world, Iran’s leaders are unsure to what extent Trump’s campaign pledges will become policy and actions in office.
After calling the 2015 nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen”, Trump backtracked to “policing the contract”, although former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a close supporter, has reiterated that Trump would quickly “fix” the agreement.
The United States cannot unilaterally tear up an international agreement — JCPOA has six parties, including Iran, and was endorsed by the UN Security Council — but many US sanctions were lifted under presidential executive orders.
Trump will have the power to reverse those orders or to introduce new ones if he judges Iran has violated any of the JCPOA’s complex and often technical clauses. The deal needs constant maintenance and it is doubtful Trump will provide it.
In Tehran, some in both principlist and reformist camps take the view that a Trump presidency can benefit Iran by producing a more isolationistic America. They speculate he might cooperate with Russia in Syria and so wittingly or unwittingly strengthen Iran’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Plus, there is a long-standing current especially among principlists arguing that Iran’s interests are better served by hard-line US officials who reveal Washington’s true intentions.
Shortly before the US election, Ali Akbar Velayati, senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Trump and his Democratic Party opponent Hillary Clinton “two sides of the same coin” and praised Trump for speaking out about poverty in the United States.
The leader has long criticised Clinton, whom he may associate with US ideas of spreading democracy and women’s rights, which he partly blamed for the 2009 unrest following a disputed presidential election.
Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, a fellow in history at the University of Manchester, counsels against such complacency. “Trump’s temperament was key throughout the presidential race and went far beyond merely negative campaigning and supposed ‘smear tactics’ by the Clinton camp,” he said in a posting on LobeLog.
“It poses real questions for how this man will conduct foreign relations, statecraft and the art of war and peace as leader of the world’s only remaining superpower.”
Sadeghi-Boroujerdi also drew attention to the support offered by leading Trump allies tipped for top positions, including Newt Gingrich and Giuliani, for the People’s Mujahideen of Iran, a violent opposition group previously allied with Saddam Hussein and particularly despised in Tehran.
Iran has its own experience of a president elected on a platform of economic populism and assertive foreign policy. In 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to “put the oil money on the sofreh” (the dining mat used by poorer Iranians).
Like Trump, he denounced the liberal elite, intellectuals and experts; like Trump, he demanded his country be restored to supposed past glories.
The reality of Ahmadinejad’s presidency was international isolation and a legacy of massive public and banking debt that is probably greater than Rohani dares admit.
“If you need counselling on how to deal with Trump, let me know,” one Iranian academic told The Arab Weekly. “We managed to deal with Ahmadinejad for eight years. The sky is not falling. We’re just going backward.”
The Iran deal is a major part of US President Barack Obama’s legacy but how long will it last?
“In Washington, the nuclear deal was meant to prevent Iran ending up with a nuclear bomb on Obama’s watch,” said Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute at the Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank.
“That was achieved. Was he ever meant to fix everything that keeps Iran and US apart? No chance; he knew it and it hasn’t happened.”